We’re away until January 3, but we’re reposting some of our favorite pieces from 2016. Enjoy your holiday!
On the defunct language of nautical flags.
There are forty flags in a complete set of international maritime signal flags—one for each letter of the English alphabet, one for each number, and four flags called substitutes, which perform special operations.
The flags are a way of raising a meaning to the eye, at a binoculared distance, and while most vessels still carry a set on board, the flags themselves—unfurled, unraised—now mainly signify that we are seafaring in the time of radio and digital and satellite and do not need to communicate so slowly or primitively, via material squares of color.
To a ship’s crew, I imagine they signify something like what a drop-down oxygen mask signifies to the commercial air traveler: if you think about it, all you realize is you don’t want to think either about the situation in which you’d have to use it or exactly how unable it would be to fully remedy that situation. The ships carry the flags in case they lose all other means of communication, but what set of circumstances could cause that kind of outage and also be cured by flying some flimsy flapping message?